Digital Scholarship Comes of Age
New questions about credibility, modes, and readership
A growing array
“People are experiencing the world through multiple media. That may mean we need to think about different forms of scholarship.”
“In terms of shaping scholarship, the technologist needs the scholar, and the scholar needs the technologist.”
Related: Emory Report's coverage of the e-journal Southern Spaces and the new certificate program in digital scholarship is here.
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Bradd Shore was skeptical about starting an electronic journal. Scholars would discount it. Authors would avoid submitting material to an upstart found only on the web. This was not the legacy he imagined for the ten-year-old Center for Myth and Ritual in American Life (MARIAL), which will close in November 2010.
“I'm in my sixties, and for almost my entire career, print was it,” says Shore, the Emory College Distinguished Teaching Professor in Anthropology and director of the marial Center. He is also the chair of Emory College's Tenure and Promotion Committee. “I had big doubts that an online publication would be viewed with equal seriousness as a print publication.”
Shore soon realized that print would be too expensive, and he reconciled himself to the digital option. After meeting with the staff of the library's digital scholarship initiative and Southern Spaces, Emory's preeminent humanities e-journal, Shore grasped that the digital path offered vastly more potential than he'd originally thought. His sense of resignation was soon overtaken by unexpected enthusiasm.
“Not only were we excited by the possibility of being able to run a journal relatively inexpensively, it also became clear that an e-journal would be far more flexible and impressive than anything we could do in print,” says Shore. “Putting digital articles together is something extraordinarily refreshing and allows us to explore family life from many different angles and media. The whole is really more than the sum of its parts; the whole is something we've never had before.” The peer-reviewed Journal of Family Life began publishing last February.
In the broadest sense, any journal that is accessible by digital technology--usually meaning the web--can be considered an electronic journal. But such an expansive
definition includes any print journal that has just been digitally replicated. That describes virtually all science and medical journals from the major publishing houses and represents little more than a change of vehicle, but not content. To most scholars, a true e-journal must have emerged, fully formed, as a digital animal with no print forebears. Another distinguishing feature of many e-journals is that they experiment with some type of open-access model, thereby eliminating subscription and submission fees.
Shore's early concern about the status of e-journals was not entirely ill-placed. As a class, e-journals have struggled to earn the prestige and credibility afforded traditional journals. Some hesitancy probably stems from the usual misgivings that hound the new and unusual. Academia, a cautious group to begin with, gravitates toward resources with high visibility and stability rather than innovative forms of presentation. For junior faculty, though, going digital could have some real career consequences, because tenure and promotion committees by and large have given a halting, and sometimes hostile, reception to the digital genre.
A May 26 article in Inside Higher Education describes what may await junior scholars who submit digital work to tenure review panels: “Even as the use of electronic media has become common across fields for research and teaching, what is taken for granted among young scholars is still foreign to many of those who sit on tenure and promotion committees. . . . Many tenure review procedures are based on an assumption that a junior professor's work can be divided easily into teaching, research and service.” One committee insisted on reviewing only a few selected pages printed from a multimedia digital project. The executive director of the Modern Language Association, Rosemary Feal, likened it to evaluating nominees for an Academy Award based on twenty still shots.
Even though the Modern Language Association and the Humanities, Arts, Science and Technology Advanced Collaboratory issued a preliminary guide for evaluating online scholarship in the humanities, Harry Rusche, Arthur Blank Distinguished Teaching Professor in English, warns his students to approach the world of digital scholarship at their own peril. Tenure committees, he says, “still count pages, they count titles, they look at the places where things are published.” Rusche is no Luddite. He has earned a reputation as a pioneer who applies new technology to teaching and research. When he was promoted to full professor in 1998, all of his relevant scholarship was already digital. He had to recommend qualified experts so that the promotion committee could evaluate his work.
New modes of scholarship
The e-journal is just one mode of digital scholarly communication, a domain that also encompasses databases, professional and scholarly hubs, encyclopedias, dictionaries, discussion forums, and blogs. E-journals, though, are most easily compared and contrasted with traditional journals because many are refereed and follow clearly delineated editorial guidelines and missions. These “born digital” entities represent an entirely novel instrument of scholarly exchange. Authors suddenly find themselves able to layer text with photos, video, audio, maps, interactive graphics, data sets, or archival material, none of which have paper-based analogues. E-journals also scramble the rigidly linear timeline of print journals by paring down the interval between submission and publication to weeks instead of months.
E-journal creators are making the rules of digital scholarship as they go. Allen Tullos, an associate professor in the Institute of Liberal Arts and senior editor of Southern Spaces, knew that to stand a chance of success the journal had to preserve expert peer review. But who do you get to referee a photo essay or video that explores both history and literature, and what about a submission that incorporates both elements on top of abundant text? Tullos built a roster of reviewers with specialized skills. “We send photo essays to reviewers just as if they were written pieces about history or literature,” Tullos says. “For interdisciplinary pieces, which are the norm for us, the reviewer might be an expert in documentary film studies and also familiar with oral histories and video
Tullos routinely asks reviewers to recommend colleagues to add to his list--an idea he got from the editors of Molecular Vision, Emory's oldest e-journal (1995) and its solitary representative in hard science. After launching, the journal, which covers the biology and genetics of visual systems, struggled to attract submissions from leading researchers. It had “zero reputation and zero impact factor (a measure of a journal's importance within its field),” according to Robert Church, a professor of ophthalmology and one of the founding editors. Editor-in-chief and cofounder Jeff Boatright, an associate professor of ophthalmology, remembered when one of the field's foremost researchers, and also a friend, joked over a beer that Molecular Vision was a journal of last resort. “Since then, he's published five articles in the journal,” says Boatright. Eventually, and in no small part by careful assembly of a respected editorial board, Molecular Vision cemented its place in the top ranks of ophthalmic journals. Now it receives about five hundred submissions annually, often from top names in the field.
A generational shift
With a generational change, scholars will fully embrace digital scholarship, and increasingly they will earn tenure for doing it, says Tullos. He notes that one of the Southern Spaces editorial board members was appointed to a chaired faculty position in digital history at the University of Nebraska. Tenure committees will naturally become better prepared to consider digital projects because they will have grown up, academically, with the new media.
E-journal reputations will also sort themselves out. “All of the digital journals need to establish themselves and prove that they are for real,” says Marshall Duke, Charles Howard Candler Professor of Psychology and founding editor of the Journal of Family Life. “Over time, a ranking or tier system will develop for online journals, and we'll know that journal X is more important than journal Y.”
Digital scholarship, some argue, has already expanded the definition of what constitutes scholarship itself, and therefore should give rise to updated measures for evaluating scholars and their work. A blog may spark interesting debates, but it's hard to argue that it is scholarship. It's not much of a stretch, though, to look afresh at other digital work, such as collaborative data collections. At Emory, the Voyages transatlantic slave trade database stands as an example. It documents almost 35,000 slave ship voyages responsible for the transport of more than ten million Africans. Such meticulously compiled resources open questions about how they might be judged and by whom.
“What would it mean to deny somebody tenure if, for example, they spent six years of their life creating a large digital project that was submitted to a peer review process and accepted by main scholars in that field but wasn't an individual effort,” says Connie Moon Sehat, senior strategist of digital scholarship initiatives for the Woodruff Library. “It took maybe three scholars, plus a team of technologists. . . . If you can cite it, if it has intellectual creativity and value, it's a production, it's stable, it's vetted, why should it not be accepted as well as a monograph?”
Determining what qualifies as scholarship will become intertwined with questions of accessibility and audience, and for what, precisely, a university grants tenure, says Liz Bounds, an associate professor of Christian ethics and faculty advisor of the e-journal Practical Matters, whose first issue was published this past spring. (Bounds emphasizes that while Practical Matters is staffed by graduate students under faculty supervision, as is Southern Spaces, it is not a student journal.) Digital media allows scholars to reach beyond academia, and Practical Matters wants to do just that.
“We wanted to try to keep the twin goals of greater access and academic standards,” says Bounds. “This shift links with our conversation at Emory about the public dimension of scholarship, which has not been traditionally considered important for tenure.”
Time and a changing of the academic guard will lead to more favorable attitudes toward public engagement with scholarship, says Gary Laderman, chair of the Department of Religion, professor of American religious history and cultures, and co-executive editor
of the online magazine Religion Dispatches. “Younger scholars are more actively seeking out different kinds of outlets for their knowledge, which is a direct result of the digital revolution. All of these things are merging and have an impact on what it means to be a scholar, what it means to be engaged in public scholarship, and what your responsibilities as a scholar are. It's such a challenge for young scholars who are
concerned about getting tenure. We want to make sure where they get published is going to count in some way.”